On Food, Farmers’ Markets and the Farm Bill

On Fridays this summer in Chicago I went to the Department of Human Services offices on 63rd Street to invite people to visit the farmers’ market. Unless I had more outreach to do in Woodlawn or South Shore, I didn’t ride my bike. The first time I rode over, I was encouraged by the security guard to bring it in, and since I hated the time it took to lock up my bike and the ostentatious display of bike-riding, I just started walking over from my office a couple blocks away. Timing was everything for this outreach: If you went at 9 when the office opened nobody was there, and any later than 11 and the same was true. The benefit of going at 10 meant it wasn’t too hot yet and I’d still manage to grab a donut and iced coffee at Robust Coffee Lounge on my way back.

After the initial relief of air-conditioning and checking in with the security guards (who always said they’d visit me at the Market and didn’t show up) I went through the same routine: pull out my magnets and fliers, and hit each corner of the room, inviting everyone to the farmers’ market just a couple blocks north on Saturday morning. Depending on the time in the summer I promoted strawberries, or corn that was coming in—peaches were a big hit.

People took the magnets and asked about how long the market had been there. The promise to visit came after I hit my last point in my invitation which was that all summer and every week as long as the market could swing it, we would double the value of SNAP benefit dollars spent at our market. It was taking $25 and turning it into $50, and you could do it every week if you wanted.

Really? Was there a catch? No, I said, just come to the big blue tent, we’ll get you taken care of. As the weeks went by I worried the funding would run out and we’d have to stop doubling, but it never happened. Old women, young men, mothers with strollers, people who saw me week after week would nod and tuck the flyer into their bag, and I’d tell them to say hi if they saw me the next day.

Earlier this month the 2014 Agricultural Act finally became law. Pundits, advocates, and in general anyone with a slight interest in the U.S. food system refers to this colloquially as the Farm Bill, and good lord, who isn’t a little tired of hearing about it?

The fighting over the bill had to do with the typical issues inherent in its cyclical passage: How it is a catch all for way too many interested parties, the subsidization of enormous agribusinesses, excessive crop insurance programs, and a lack of support for conservation of farmland programs. Beyond these issues, which may seem far off to those of us unfamiliar with family or factory farms, is an issue constantly causing friction since Jimmy Carter brought together urban and rural interested parties in the 1977 Farm Bill, which is the funding of nutritional benefits, and colloquially, “food stamps.”

If you’ll remember from the summer, House Republicans in their effort to shrink government spending and take a stand against entitlement, proposed slashing nutritional benefits as well as dividing the bill into two separate bills. One would be strictly agricultural and the other would be dedicated to the feeding of needy families, women, infants, children, seniors and anyone else in the 49 million people living in the U.S. who are food insecure.

The 2014 Farm Bill signed into law didn’t cut into SNAP as deeply as first proposed, but the cuts are there. The Senate proposed only a $4.5 billion cut, but the bill cut $8.7 billion in benefits. In Illinois this means 8% of the SNAP budget will vanish. Toward the end of the year, when benefits were being threatened by lack of progress on the stimulus front, it was reported over two million residents in the state receive assistance, with one million of them living in Cook County, home to the city of Chicago.

Part of the reason I was interested in my graduate program in city policy was because the classes and opportunities are geared towards an interest in food equity and access advocacy. I’ve found this isn’t uncommon. We’re in the midst of a wave of attention being paid to food, to what we eat and how, how much we pay for it, how we get to it, who makes it for us, how good or bad things are for us, and everyone has something to say about it.

When we talk about food systems (and something like the Agriculture Bill which is policy geared towards tackling the domestic system), it can be hard to keep in mind how enormous and split-off the system is. Most of us occupy spaces in it because we eat food and dispose of waste. Some of us have worked in food processing, preparation and serving (count me in) or at farmers’ markets (yep, done that too) or even as interns on small farms (three for three!). My advocacy had pretty much been stuck at that point into buying local produce once in a while at my farmers’ market and composting in the nearby community garden near my apartment.

So over the summer I interned for the 61st Street Farmers’ Market in Chicago, which pioneered the Link Up! Illinois program. The program allowed those with SNAP benefits on a LINK card to use them at farmers’ markets and farm stands, as one could use cash or credit/debit cards. Specifically our market promoted the double-value program, where if a customer used her LINK card, we could match her purchase up to $25 dollars, every week. We received our funding for this from Paul Newman’s Wholesome Wave foundation. A report released from the market’s sponsor organization, Experimental Station, showed that matching double-value funds totaled just about $19,000. The market was also number one in LINK sales in the state, so all LINK sales cleared about $40,000 for the entire season.

With the 2014 Agriculture Bill, we’re supposed to be praising the inclusion of a SNAP Incentive program with $5 million set aside to double benefits. Considering the single market I worked at would make up about 1% of that, and based on data gathered at the Market, LINK sales encompassed only 3% of all LINK users in the zip code of the market, I’m less inclined to be extraordinarily grateful for the provision.

Farmers’ markets in underserved neighborhoods (“food deserts,” a term I’m loath to continue promoting as it is consistently misunderstood) are seen as a solution to closing loops in the food system. They provide physical open-space sites, encouraging active transportation and gathering of the public, they often have smaller barriers to entry for producers and growers, they’re easy sites for education and outreach.

By providing the option to pay with EBT cards, purchasing food at a farmers’ market becomes more normalized. It increases profits for producers and growers, reinforcing the connection first created with Jimmy Carter between rural and city interests. When much of the agricultural bill is still swollen with subsidies for monoculture crops and insurance ($200 billion is set for agriculture; $1.2 billion of that is set aside for local food, beginner farmers, specialty crops, rural development and sustainable agriculture), the idea that perhaps at least a little bit of the nutritional assistance funding can find its way back to local growers of vegetables, fruit, meat, eggs and milk.

While this is a way to strengthen smaller supplies (small producers) with a huge demand (the millions of people who aren’t food secure in this country, which is at record highs), the cultural cloud that rises up over farmers’ markets, food deserts and healthy options for people in cities is noxious. From the libertarian arguments of letting people eat whatever they want to those who think poor people need to be better at budgeting to afford sometimes more expensive food at a market to those who think eating organic or local is not a priority when people are basically trying to survive, I’ve been in and out of all of these arguments. It mostly makes me tired and it mostly makes me sad, as well as very wary of many aspects of food justice.

We have to eat. Because we all try to, and many of us not well enough, we’ve become armchair experts. However, the facts remain that one in six Americans face hunger every day. Worldwide we’re matching overfed and underfed at 1.1 billion to 1.1 billion, with both populations facing malnourishment. We are still not encouraging small farm growth that could be better uses of land than real estate development, not to mention encouraging more sustainable farming practices, and we are telling the huge, diverse group of Americans who need a little help to eat every day they better be on the watch—we’re cutting the funds, and you better figure something out.

Market Saturdays I sometimes did more outreach, trying to capitalize on the immediacy of the market.

One June morning I ride down 63rd, past the DHS office and the Green Line to a church near the Dan Ryan where the food pantry is just opening. I speak with the woman running the pantry that morning, her high school daughter, and of course agree I’m not going to proselytize, just hang out around the line for a while. People begin to line up and I sit on the curb with a pile of magnets and flyers, and make small talk. The line is full of men, women, old, young, with shopping bags or pulling up in cars. They tell me they’ll probably get their benefits refilled soon and when they do they’ll stop by. They wouldn’t mind some fresh strawberries, because all they’ve gotten recently is apples. “Just down the street?” they ask. I say, “Yeah, right off the bus, we’ll be there ’till 2 p.m. until December! Come out whenever.”

All my magnets are gone and I jump back on my bike, past shuttered corner stores and empty lots, and hope by the time anyone I’ve spoken with shops our grant benefits don’t run out. By the end of the season they hadn’t. I’m hoping to see the program expand across the city this season and I wonder how far $5 billion dollars across the country will go.


Carmen Aiken is a writer and city policy graduate student living in Chicago. Chas Redmond



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